Barbie’s Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue is a game I’ve seen crop up a lot on “worst games ever” lists, although the justification always remains flimsy. “Rescuing horses can’t possibly be fun”, the argument goes. And then that’s it. What nobody understands (or cares to understand) is that despite its name, Wild Horse Rescue was never about rescuing horses; it was about being Barbie. Unfortunately, that still doesn’t make the game very good. While the game assumes that the player will want to buy into the Barbie fantasy, it fails to make Barbie herself an appealing person worthy of emulation. And without anything else to rely on, the game settles into a bland adventure.
To give the game credit, though, it understands what people look for in a Barbie game. They want to play with dolls and live the Barbie life, and features like changing Barbie’s outfit and washing horses tie into that idea very strongly. Although they distract from Barbie’s goal of rescuing the horses, these activities certainly let players live out their goal of being Barbie.
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t make you want to be Barbie, or at least this particular Barbie. Despite joining her friends on the horse rescuing mission, Babie never shows the slightest hint of cooperation. She’ll call up her friends in the middle of her own journey just to tell them that she found a horse and expects them to pick it up for her. She doesn’t consider leading the horse back herself, or calling the stable manager about the horses, or asking the people she calls how their search has gone, or even just texting them the information (which is well within her ability, given that she’s using a cellphone). Instead, Barbie chooses to impose herself on her friends whenever the opportunity presents itself.
This shouldn’t be what Barbie’s about. I mean, the game gets the idea of Barbie right: that she’s the popular idol living the rich life, having all these fantastic friends ready to wait on her hand and foot. Yet the game assumes that this is all natural to Barbie; that she didn’t have to do anything to earn what she has. So Barbie comes across as completely unlikable rather than somebody the player would want to be.
Not that Wild Horse Rescue lets its players pretend to be Barbie, anyway. In its eyes, the player is just another one of Barbie’s acolytes, meaning she’ll treat them as such. Her voice clogs the experience at every minor turn, pointing out basic information and congratulating the player for even the most piddling accomplishments. “A foal is a baby horse”, she says, condescendingly assuming you don’t know any better. Keep in mind that this demeaning, explanatory attitude is the norm, not the exception. This is how the game chooses to characterize its protagonist.
Not that Barbie is alone in that kind of characterization. More often than you think, Barbie will stumble across a key not twenty feet away from a gate with a key-shaped hole emblazoned on the front. I want to think that the people playing this game are smarter than that. At least smart enough to recognize when they’re being talked down to.
It’s almost like the game is scared that challenging the player in even the slightest way will scare off its girl audience. I don’t entirely understand where those fears come from, because the game has quite a bit to be proud of. Putting Barbie aside for a second, the horse trails quickly spring to mind. Each one is a scenic ride through the wilderness, whether that’s the forest, the snowy mountains, or the beach. Granted, those are the only settings Barbie can ride through, and they don’t radiate natural beauty on every turn. More often, they simply look alright, the truly captivating parts being tucked away in the rare cavern or castle ruin. Yet the feeling you get from cantering through these areas is calm and soothing and with enough varied sights that the game could rely on it if it had to.
(Part of me finds it silly to praise anything resembling strong natural settings in a game where foals trap themselves on moving carousels or atop lighthouses or underneath horse statues made of ice. Yet these sections aren’t as incredulous as you’d initially believe, at least if you go into them with an open mind and a willingness to laugh along.)
However, we have to remember that these features exist in a specific context, and it’s that context that has me worried. Barbie’s presence dominates everything in Wild Horse Rescue. Some parts of the game absolutely require the Barbie brand if they’re to make any sense, whereas others can’t escape her presence even when they don’t need it. This wouldn’t be such an issue if not for the Barbie fantasy at the heart of Wild Horse Rescue. Accidental or not, the game depicts Barbie as an inconsiderate friend who’s either oblivious to the problems with her actions, or simply doesn’t care about them. As strange as it sounds, it almost reminds me of Batman: Arkham Origins. Both are games with genuine merit, yet both are ultimately tied down by the faulty premises they rely on.